Refreshing approaches

Pilot schools report back on new guidance, due to be released next year, that will revitalize approaches to teaching and learning in the IB Diploma Programme

Support from colleagues and the opportunity to discover new ways of imparting knowledge and life skills to students is crucial to keeping your practice fresh and relevant. That’s why the IB is providing clear, definitive guidance for implementing approaches to teaching and learning in the IB Diploma Programme for the first time. The newly codified advice is based on teachers’ experiences.

“Many of the practices we are advocating are already happening in IB World Schools,” says Jenny Gillett, Curriculum Manager for philosophy, history and theory of knowledge.

“Especially in continuum schools, because approaches to learning (ATL) skills have long been explicitly referenced in both the PYP (as transdiciplinary skills) and the MYP,” she says. “This is an opportunity for Diploma Programme teachers to renew their practice with fresh ideas from the community.”

From the ground up

The new guidance, which will be released in January 2015, has been born out of the day-to-day experiences of IB teachers and coordinators across the world. More than 140 schools took part in the year-long pilot scheme, which aimed to develop and refine the guidance materials.

They critiqued and made additions to the guide itself, shared their best practice, and tried out the guide’s advice by planning and implementing at least one ATL initiative.

“Our year one IB Diploma Programme students were having a tough time stepping up to the academic level required,” says Karen Ercolino, IB and CAS Coordinator at the International School of Prague (ISP), Czech Republic.

“So we jumped at the chance to trial the ATL guidance before it becomes mainstream. It’s something we had been working on, and the draft framework was the ideal catalyst to take it further.” The ISP team took a faculty-wide approach, working together to target a new skill each month such as terminology building and decoding questions.

“Our teachers were excited because often these initiatives are very top down. We felt empowered to implement the ATL in the best way for our students, in each subject,” says Ercolino. “All our faculty were on board.”

And the end result? “There’s a marked difference in our students. One that maybe we didn’t see in the past when we’ve had groups of this nature,” she says. “At the start of the year, we asked students how they thought they were progressing compared to the previous year: over a third said they were doing worse.

Now, at the end of the year, only 18 per cent feel that way. It’s hard to say that teaching the ATL more explicitly was the main factor in their progress, but we feel that making an overt effort to talk about these learning skills really helped them.”

Personalized teaching

Students at Vienna International School (VIS), Austria, were also enthused by the new approaches.

“They enjoyed reflecting on the learning methods used in their classrooms, and were excited by experiencing what they perceived as a more personalized approach to pedagogy,” says Jacob Martin, the school’s Curriculum Leader and IB Diploma Programme Coordinator.

But, he reflects, some students took more naturally to these approaches than others. “Some excelled in approaching topics in a more self-directed way and enjoyed exploring ideas at their own pace in smaller groups.

Others – particularly those who didn’t experience the MYP – didn’t have the right skills and became frustrated, and needed more help from teachers.” VIS has recently re-joined the MYP, which Martin says was a big advantage for the chemistry and German teachers who took part in the pilot.

“The MYP has always had a strong, clear emphasis on ATL; I think that familiarity will really help when the approaches are implemented throughout the whole school. When that time comes, forward planning will be essential to making sure the students experience a logical progression of ATL through the continuum.”

Transferable learning

Staff at the Anglo European School, UK, are looking forward to the benefits the ATL will bring to its IBCC programme. “ATL is already a compulsory part of the core IBCC programme,” explains Curriculum Manager Bradley Snell.

“Students have three hours of ATL lessons every fortnight. We expect that making the approaches more explicit in IB Diploma Programme courses will reinforce the skills learnt in these separate lessons, and give more status to them.”

Snell worked closely with history teacher Andrew Sutherland to introduce the ATL to a small group of students. “We focused on one six-week unit of work around conceptual learning, concentrating on causation,” says Sutherland.

“The topic was German unification, which is complex, so introducing the ATL here was fantastic. Students brought into play ideas about causation derived from previous learning, and thought about how their ideas could be applied to other subjects. In the past, we’ve had to rely on theory of knowledge (TOK) to help them do that.”

“The guidance confirmed a lot of things we were already doing,” says Snell. “But it’s nice to have a set of ideas you can revisit and use to inspire your practice. Teachers are busy; it’s easy to forget tips and tricks you’ve used in the past. The ATL resources – the guide itself, as well as the videos the IB is producing – will be useful reminders of the things you can bring into your lessons.”

Evolving practice

“The ATL guide has been warmly welcomed by teachers,” says Michael Bindon, Curriculum Manager for theatre, film and visual arts. “Until now, IB Diploma Programme support has tended to focus on what to teach, rather than on the ‘how’ or the ‘why’.

The new guidance attempts to unpack the most appropriate ways to engage our young people in the subjects we offer.”

Bindon expects the ATL to be something that teachers and students explore and experiment with over time. “It’s an evolving practice,” he says.

“After the guidance information is released in January 2015, we expect teachers to learn from and collaborate with each other, refining the ideas we’ve collected so far and adapting them to their subjects and students.”

All resources, including documents, sample unit planners and videos of best practice in lessons, will be available online. There are also plans for an online forum where teachers can discuss concepts and ideas, and share their experiences of ATL.

Making it work

The pilot scheme has shown that many IB teachers and coordinators are already familar with many of the ideas advocated in the ATL guidance. But schools who took part say they found it to be a useful way of encouraging teachers to adopt more formal and more clearly developed strategies to support the implementation of these ideas.

“Many of our staff have years of experience, and already know how to teach and encourage learning in IB Diploma Programme classrooms,” says Snell. “The focus of the IB on this area, and the idea behind the guide, isn’t to tell people what to do: it’s to affirm the good practice that’s already happening in classrooms.” “The new guidance is intended to be helpful and supportive, rather than prescriptive or restrictive,” confirms Gillett.

"The materials we’ll share in January include samples and examples of good unit plans and planners. It’s important that teachers are engaging in effective planning, but we want them to have the independence and flexibility to use whatever format they want. The planners are a helpful example of how we think this can be achieved effectively.”

Another difficulty, says Ecolino, is that teaching the approaches to learning skills is “almost counter-intuitive. You need to understand that by taking time away from the explicit content and skills that are part of the curriculum, and teaching these more general skills, it can help your students to be more successful with that specific content. Taking that leap is scary for teachers – but it’s worth it.”

Martin agrees. “It is often assumed that ATL skills are complete and fully mature – as if by magic – when students start the IB Diploma Programme,” he says. “At the moment, it’s possible to ignore the issue of addressing these underlying skills. But they must be taught in classrooms because of their value beyond the IB – they’re required by all employers and are vital for life in the wider world.”

“The pilot scheme has made clear that implementing the guidance has equipped students with the vocabulary and skills they need,” adds Bindon. “These approaches will furnish them with the skills they need to be resilient, self-sufficient lifelong learners.”